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SA’s 4IR: Revolution or global peer pressure

The world has moved to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Picture: geralt/Pixabay

The world has moved to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Picture: geralt/Pixabay

Published Jun 11, 2022


By Sihle Lonzi

There is a persistent debate among economic historians which seeks to answer why the Industrial Revolution took place in 18th century Britain. Though very nuanced, with many different justifications, the two dominant poles of this debate are; demand-driven arguments on the one side, and supply-driven arguments on the other. What we learn very early in the discussion is that revolutions, of any kind, do not just happen out of thin air.

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Dialectical materialism, developed by Karl Marx and his very close friend Friedrich Engels, enforces this idea that the material world has an objective reality, of which all ideals and aspirations develop from. In other words, it is not that Marx and his very close friend denied spiritual and or mental activity, rather they understood and argued that ideas can only arise as products of the material conditions of the time.

What is in our minds reflects and wrestles with what we encounter in the material world around us. It is on this logical foundation that I will lay the bricks of my persuasion that, in South Africa, there are neither demand nor supply side conditions to activate a meaningful genesis of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Perhaps it is worth noting that I will not be favouring any one side over the other. There is a lot of scholarly work which compares the demand and supply side arguments, in an attempt to ascertain which is more accurate. However, that is not what I sought to achieve in this paper. The simple argument I will advance, as you will quickly learn, is that even if we were to say the demand side arguments are more accurate, South Africa would not qualify.

Equally, even if we were to say the supply side arguments are more accurate, South Africa still would not qualify as a nation whose material conditions have reached a fertile stage to give rise to a meaningful Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Let us now explore these demand and supply side arguments of why Britain was the cradle of the very first industrial revolution. We will be borrowing from the work of two economic historians. On the demand side we will look at Robert Allen, and on the supply side we will be looking at Morgan Kelly.

Robert Allen invites us to think about the wages in Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, juxtaposed against France and India. He does this through a case study of the Spinning Jenny. The Spinning Jenny was a hand powered multi-spindle machine used to spin cotton. What is significant about the “Jenny” is that, as Allen also makes the point, it was not a sophisticated technological invention. Hargreaves, who was responsible for the invention of the Spinning Jenny, is described by Allen as a layman, who did not benefit from State institutions, nor did he form part of the upper class.

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This characterisation of Hargreaves is important because many of the arguments presented to explain why the Industrial Revolution was British, emphasise the political structure of Britain, the culture, and its enlightenment. As I will show later, Kelly speaks of the education of workers having a positive relationship with the skilfulness and quality of their labour.

However, to Allen, all these factors, that is good laws, good schools and good culture may have been important, and very well necessary, but, in his assessment, they certainly were not sufficient to propagate the Industrial Revolution.

Allen computes two graphs which are important to his hypothesis. The one graph shows the Spinner’s (women) earnings relative to men’s, over the years preceding and succeeding the advent of the Industrial Revolution. While the other graph develops this data to tell a story of the rate of return of the Jenny, in those respective years.

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What we learn from this data is that there is a directly proportional relationship between the relative wages of Spinners, and the rate of return of the Spinning Jenny. In other words, in the early 16th and 17th century, where the relative wages of Spinners were low, the rate of return for the “Jenny” would also be low.

The implications of this, in the words of Allen, was that it would not have “paid” to develop the Spinning Jenny in the years preceding the Industrial Revolution. The profitability of the Spinning Jenny, or rather the profitability of technological innovation and development at the time, relied largely on what Allen saw as the most crucial factor cost, which was labour.

Due to Britain’s high wage economy relative to the other nations, technological innovation became the most economic logical conclusion, in an attempt to discount production costs.

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Morgan Kelly, on the supply side, does not necessarily disagree with Allen’s observation that Britain had a high wage economy. However, to him, the high wages were merely a reflection of the quality of the British labour force. Therefore, as opposed to high wages being a key driver of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, it was rather the very skillful and cognitively superior labour force of Britain, which saw it lead the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the world. Morgan highlights two dimensions of human capital to drive this point.

First, it is the physical condition of the workers, and secondly, their superior productive capacity and knack, relative to the rest of Europe.

He locates nutrition at the centre of the physical fitness of the British labour force. Arguing that the investment parents made in the general nutrition and health of their children resulted in greater physical strength and wellness. Morgan does this by demonstrating that there is a positive relationship between good nutrition in Britain at the time, and the physical fitness of the British labour force. This, of course, gave them a competitive advantage over other nations in Europe.

On the productive capacity, cognitive superiority and skilfulness of the labour force, Morgan argued that it was the strong institutions present in Britain at the time which gave rise to a very mechanically apt labour force.

He praises the apprenticeship systems, good schools and also the absence of regressive and restrictive laws exemplified through the guilds. Therefore, for Morgan, the nature, character and readiness of the English worker, what he or she possesses, is what placed Britain on the driving seat of the Industrial Revolution.

Irrespective of whether one believes that it was the high wages alone which gave rise to the industrial revolution, or the readiness and skilfulness of the labour force, or even a combination of both of these, what I hope is becoming clear by now is that it is the material and socio-economic environment of any nation which sows the seeds of its development.

When you develop and capacitate your labour force through good, effective and relevant schooling, technological or advancement of any sort becomes inevitable. We learn this principle quite clearly from a nation like China. It is only when China began to meaningfully invest in its citizens, that it was the citizens themselves who propagated and actively participated in the development of China. When there was a debate around why China “missed” the first industrial revolution there was a popular saying, which is still very much relevant today, that “Europe chooses progress, whilst China chooses security and stability.”

The significance of this reflection is that when many nations were jumping on a global bandwagon, China first looked inward. It protected its local economies and industries, invested in education and the delivering of basic and critical services to its people, and once it was able to achieve that, it opened the doors of global trade, and, as they say, “the rest is history”.

China maintained the titled of the “world’s fastest growing economy” until it affirmed itself as the largest economy in the world, competing rigorously with its major commercial partner and rival, the US.

Those leading the 4IR debate in South Africa have failed to think structurally about the implications of prescribing a global solution without considering the local environment of South Africa. They are like doctors who prescribe before diagnosing. They have fallen in love with solutions without understanding the problem.

In an engagement with student activists hosted at Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape, which is what actually made me write this thought piece, we were contemplating the transition to online learning in institutions of higher learning, and some basic education sectors.

What came up persistently is that this rush to mirror the global image, will further entrench inequalities within our society. Those who are wealthy, with access to dignified shelter, running water, electricity and internet will reap the benefits of online learning alone.

Left behind will be the majority of South Africa who still live below the poverty line, has no access to basic needs and services, quality healthcare, running water, electricity and internet connection. Can we fault a learner in the poor communities of South Africa who decides to sell their tablet or laptop to buy bread or electricity? Or one who loses it to crime and muggings? Or one who cannot even begin to use it because of the spatial living conditions which are not conducive to any kind of learning?

It is Marx and his close friend again who persuade us that “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue… science...”

The role of a caring and scientific developmental state is, therefore, to refocus its energy in creating or rather investing in the material environment which produces the possibilities of technological innovation. I want to submit that once the people’s most basic needs have been met, and there is meaningful investment in their education and skills development, and local industries and economies are protected and supported, it will be the people themselves who become the midwives of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa and Africa.

Clearly apparent is that the socio-economic environment of South Africa neither demands, nor supplies the possibilities of a meaningful industrial revolution. What remains, therefore, is the uninspiring reality that those who claim to be advancing a 4IR discourse, are in fact canvassing Global Peer Pressure and what I term “Tech-Mongering.”

* Sihle Lonzi is a student at the University of Cape Town, studying Economics and Philosophy. He is a former UCT SRC member for two terms. He is a member and activist of the EFF Students Command. He writes in his personal capacity.